The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The House is supposed to represent the people. It doesn’t.

The U.S. Capitol dome on Aug. 2 in Washington. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Of the three elected parts of the federal government, the House of Representatives was supposed to be the one most responsive to the changing preferences of voters.

Senators originally weren’t elected by citizens, but by state legislatures. The electoral college system also let state legislatures appoint presidential electors, and many did in in the country’s early years.

By contrast, direct election of representatives was intended to cause the House to have “an immediate dependence on, and intimate sympathy with, the people,” as the Federalist Papers explained.

It hasn’t worked out as planned. Because of redistricting and especially partisan gerrymandering, the House is now the least responsive elected part of the federal government. Voters have a much tougher time changing their representative than their senators or the president.

This point is easily illustrated with numbers from last year’s election. The presidential race was extremely competitive and could have ended up going either way, depending on small shifts in the views of voters.

Joe Biden ended up winning the national popular vote by 4.5 points: 51.3 percent to 46.8 percent. Yet many of the battleground states were much closer. Biden’s victories over Donald Trump in Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin were all by less than one point, and his win in Pennsylvania was barely more than that (1.2), as was Trump’s narrow win in North Carolina (1.3).

All these competitive states in the presidential election mean that Senate seats in those states are also up for grabs. Georgia proved that with its double runoffs on Jan. 5, which had margins of victory of 1. 2 and 2 points.

But House elections as a whole are utterly uncompetitive — even in the most competitive states. House races essentially are foregone conclusions, in which voters reasonably can view voting as pointless. This reality thoroughly negates the original purpose of having the House “dependent on the people alone” as determined by elections.

Consider Georgia. Despite being hyper-competitive in its presidential and Senate elections, the average margin of its House elections in 2020 was a whopping 32.9 points. Four of Georgia’s 14 House races had margins greater than 50 points. Another two of the state’s seats had margins above 30 points, and three more were greater than 20 points. Only two seats had under 10-point margins, or closer than 55-45.

Nor are these numbers caused by the specific congressional candidates. The margins between Biden and Trump in Georgia’s House districts were just about as lopsided as the House races themselves. The average gap between Biden and Trump in Georgia’s congressional districts was 30.2, only slightly lower than the 32.9 average margin between Georgia’s congressional candidates.

The stark reality: In a state where the presidential election was almost tied, voters were stuck in congressional districts in which they have no hope of changing the outcome. While Georgia’s voters can expect to make a difference in their statewide races, they might as well write off their House elections as largely meaningless.

It’s the same story around the country. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona are all presidential battlegrounds with hotly contested Senate races next year. But the House seats in these states are mostly locked up.

It needn’t be this way. The Constitution doesn’t require that the House be districted into single-member seats. Instead, Congress has enacted this requirement, and Congress could replace this rule with a system of multi-member districts aimed at fair representation for all.

It’s too late to debate this ambitious reform before next year’s midterms. But it’s not too late for Congress to insist that single-member districts, to be redrawn after census data is released Aug. 12, be as competitive as possible.

Congress could do this by comparing Biden-Trump margins in the proposed districts with the Biden-Trump margin statewide. If a state’s proposed districts on average are more uncompetitive than the state overall, then the state would need to justify that deviation based on valid districting factors — such as ensuring compliance with the Voting Rights Act or keeping counties and municipalities intact.

The “big sort” — Democrats in cities and Republicans in rural areas — has made districting harder. But if a state could achieve valid districting objectives with more competitive districts, the state would need to adjust accordingly. Congress could give federal courts or the Justice Department authority to enforce this standard.

Doing this before new maps take effect should be a top priority. Otherwise, the 2022 House elections will be an empty gesture — the exact opposite of what the founders meant them to be.